U.S. President elect Barack Obama acknowledges his supports along with...

U.S. President elect Barack Obama acknowledges his supports along with his wife Michelle (R) and daughters Malia (2nd R) and Sasha to during an election night gathering in Chicago, Illinois. Pictured here, Michelle Obama is wearing a red dress by Narciso Rodriguez. (Nov. 4, 2008) Credit: Getty Images

Paris has its scarves and skinny suits, Milan has its luxe leather and London its swinging miniskirts. But ask American designers what they've added to fashion, and the collective answer is democracy, from wrap dresses worn by working women in the 1970s to a dress worn by the first lady.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, in honor of its 50th anniversary this year, asked its membership to craft their own "impact statements" and choose outfits they feel best represent their signature styles for a new exhibit at the Museum at FIT in Manhattan: "Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA."

"There is something magical about the way this group was founded back in 1962 ... It was the brain trust of 20 passionate designers who were motivated to create a safe haven," writes CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg. Now, there's 400-plus.

Von Furstenberg lent the exhibit an original wrap dress from the 1970s, a symbol of the working women's movement, while Oscar de la Renta, a former CFDA president, offered up a neon-accented gown from his current spring collection (saying his newest designs are his most important).

"Someone like Marc [Jacobs] is such a huge, influential entity, but he followed the American path," said Patricia Mears, museum deputy director and curator. "When he did his groundbreaking grunge collection, it got him fired, but he says that's what set him free and served as a launchpad for something new."

Jacobs is represented in the exhibit by a dress from that 1992 flannel-and-long johns collection. The garment came from Anna Sui's personal collection. Her explanation: "I guess Marc doesn't keep an extensive archive, and I'm a pack rat!"

But that's typical of the remarkably close relationships formed within the fashion community, said Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA. While the industry is stereotyped by outsiders as catty and cutthroat, Kolb says he's come to see that designers not only support each other, but they thrive off each other.

One of the most familiar dresses in the exhibit belongs to Narciso Rodriguez. It's the runway version of the red-and-black sheath that Michelle Obama wore on election night in '08.

"We are glad to show fashion in a cultural context," FIT's Mears said. "We want someone to look at the Stephen Burrows or Halston and say, 'That's from my youth,' or remember Donna's [Karan] woman-as-president ad campaign and remember the effect it had on them. They've all had impact beyond creating a beautiful dress."

IF YOU GO

THE MUSEUM AT FIT: Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, Manhattan; fitnyc.edu or 212-217-4558. Open Tuesday-Friday, noon-8 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. "Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA" runs through April 17.

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